Entertainment » Theatre

Les Miserables

by Jonathan Leaf
Contributor
Friday Mar 28, 2014
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’Les Mis’ returns to the Great White Way
’Les Mis’ returns to the Great White Way  (Source:publicityoffice.com)

The musical version of Victor Hugo’s "Les Miserables" was not well-received when it first opened in London in 1985. The Telegraph, for instance, called it a "a lurid Victorian melodrama."

Reviews were so bad, in fact, that producer Cameron Mackintosh had planned to close it within a week of its first curtain.

What dissuaded him were the lines of young people he saw standing by the box office. Although the story it tells is of a failed popular uprising, the musical proved to be a real one. The average folk had rebelled against the highbrow taste-makers.

But the weaknesses of the show, based upon Hugo’s 1862 pulp classic, are real. Adapted from his wildly-plotted and often quite verbose novel of 513,000 words -- two-thirds the length of an entire English-language Bible -- it necessarily develops its multiple plot-lines and many characters with minimal depth and complexity.

Three hours with a brief intermission is simply not enough time to cram in all the characters and incidents from a phone book-sized epic in a way that makes all that much sense. Thus, the wholly implausible tale presented in the musical’s opening act races along from one hokey set piece to another with barely a moment to breathe.

What sustains it is its unbridled emotion. This is realized through Claude-Michel Schonberg’s kitschy but also catchy and often very affecting pop-rock score.

That score is being played with what sounds like a pared down pit. (New orchestrations are credited -- if that’s the right word -- in the program to Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Booker.)

Will Swenson in the part of the dogmatic and villainous Inspector Javert offers the audience something that Russell Crowe in the recent film did not: the ability to sing.

Moreover, at the performance I saw the orchestra was both too loud and too fast through most of the first act. And the sets look a bit bus and truck at times.

What the producers of the current revival, located at the site of the show’s original long Broadway run, the Imperial Theatre, seem to have rightly spent their money on though is the huge and very fine cast they’ve assembled.

This number is led by Will Swenson in the part of the dogmatic and villainous Inspector Javert, a man intent on capturing Jean Valjean, the honorable fugitive in flight (Ramin Karimloo) who seeks to protect the orphaned Cosette (Samantha Hill as a grown-up).

Among the many things to like about Swenson, the star of the recent "Hair" revival, is that he offers the audience something that Russell Crowe in the recent film did not: the ability to sing.

In this Swenson is like all of his castmates. Other special vocal standouts are the charming Andy Mientus as the young swain Marius, and Nikki M. James as Marius’s unrequited would-be lover Eponine.

But nearly all of the cast members in the current production are improvements on those picked for the film. Inevitably thus, at the end of the performance I attended, the audience erupted with unaffected delight and enthusiasm.

I confess that while I laughed at the production more than once that I was not unmoved myself, and I think most who read this won’t be either.

"Les Miserables" enjoys an extended run at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street. For tickets or information, call 212-239-6200 or visit www.lesmis.com/broadway.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

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